The mid-'80s trios for Steeplechase mark a consistent high point in Bley's now capacious output. …It's only really on Indian Summer that one feels the chemistry is just right. This is one of the pianist's periodic blues-based programmes. Engineered by Kazunori Sigiyama, who's responsible for DIW's output, it registers brightly, essential for music which is as softly pitched as much of this is. The high points are Bley's own "Blue Waltz" and an ironic "The More I See You," in which he works through variations in much the same way as he had on Caravan Suite for the same label, reconstructing the melodies rather than simply going through the changes. It's a fine record by any standards, but it stands out prominently among the later trios.
Ballantyne is a bright new Canadian piano star. He gets a good sound from the instrument and plays just as much or as little as he needs to get his point across. Nowhere is this better illustrated than on Question, an exploration that discovers all of the melodyХs most telling points. On Alternative Vision and Polka Dots he takes a more aggressive stance as befits an amiable piano and drum duel. It is the former that shows off his chops but it is the latter that demonstrates his natural way with a tune.
Can it be a coincidence that this CD, subtitled "Inspiration from Gregorian Chant," was recorded right around the time that chant music was reaching its improbable peak on the album charts? In any case, this enjoyable, offbeat trio album featuring the unusual combination of Bley's piano, David Eyges' electric cello and Bruce Ditmas' drums seems to have very little to do with Gregorian chant per se. Indeed, such numbers as "Wisecracks" and "Loose Change" are definitely based on the blues, "Decompose" has an M-base funk foundation, and "Funhouse" is a nasty, down-home bit of grooving that eventually becomes engulfed in a swirling maelstrom (so this is from whom Keith Jarrett may have picked up some of his group concepts).
Fully 35 years after Open, to Love, Paul Bley's seminal solo piano recording for ECM (which stands as a watermark both in his own career and in the history of the label – i.e., unconsciously aiding Manfred Eicher in establishing its "sound"), the pianist returns to the label for another go at it on Solo in Mondsee. Recorded in Mondsee, Austria, in 2001, and not issued until Bley's 75th year, these numbered "Mondsee Variations" were played on a Bösendorfer Imperial grand piano, an instrument that is, like its player, in a class of its own. Bley moves through ten improvisations lasting between two and just under nine minutes each.
The second ESP issue from the Paul Bley Trio is a contrast as dramatic as rain against sunshine. The earlier album, Barrage, recorded in October of 1964, was full of harsh, diffident extrapolations of sound and fury, perhaps because of its sidemen; Marshall Allen and Dewey Johnson on saxophone and trumpet, respectively, were on loan from Sun Ra and joined Eddie Gomez and Milford Graves. Indeed, the music there felt like one long struggle to survive. On this date, recorded over a year later and released in 1966, Bley's sidemen are two more like-minded experimentalists, drummer Barry Altschul and bassist Steve Swallow.
Why aren't there more recordings like Fly Away Little Bird? Perhaps it's because there aren't more musicians of this stature. The studio reunion of the legendarily experimental Jimmy Giuffre 3 in 1992 was reissued in 2002 on the French Sunnyside label and is a radical departure from anything the trio had done in the past. These studio apparitions of the band are their most seamlessly accessible while being wildly exploratory. In addition to the consummate improvisations and compositions by Giuffre (title track, a redone "Tumbleweed"), the tender meditations by Steve Swallow ("Fits" and "Starts"), and the bottom-register contrapuntal improves by Paul Bley ("Qualude"), this is a trio recording that uses standards such as "Lover Man," a radically and gorgeously reworked "I Can't Get Started," "Sweet and Lovely," and "All the Things You Are" to state hidden textural possibilities inside chromatic harmony. There is never the notion of restraint in the slow, easy, and proactive way these compositions are approached.
When one considers the instrumentation (alto, piano and guitar) and the personnel (Bob Mover, Paul Bley and John Abercrombie), it is not surprising that this date is full of thoughtful, chance-taking and often lyrical improvisations. Most of the selections are either duets or unaccompanied solos, and although there are some melodies, the music was pretty much all improvised on the spot. An intriguing set.
Although one often thinks of Jaco Pastorius' first solo album as being 1976's Jaco on Epic, producer/keyboardist Paul Bley actually gave Pastorius his first chance to lead a recording two years earlier. Coincidentally titled Jaco, this spontaneous set (which has been reissued on CD) is also significant for being among guitarist Pat Metheny's first recordings; completing the quartet are Bley on electric piano and drummer Bruce Ditmas. The music consists of three songs by Bley, five from Carla Bley, and "Blood" by Annette Peacock. Pastorius sounds quite powerful, but Metheny's tone is kind of bizarre, very distorted and not at all distinctive at this point.
Ballads, which really seems to make ballads out of ballads, has been considered both worthy of hanging on the museum wall alongside the other masterpieces and being accorded special merit as the jazz record most used for background music. Since no less a genius than the great French composer Erik Satie invented the concept of background music, this might not be such a contradiction or insult. Only the short "Circles" invites a real comparison with the piano music of Satie; elsewhere you're in extremely extended territory, Paul Bley's desire to play the slowest music in history meshing with a new style of rhythm section accompaniment that sounds like everything from tuning the drums to adjusting the drapes.